Why the Wirral village of Port Sunlight is built on a bar of soap

He was the Jeff Bezos of his day, a polymath who founded a business empire — built on soap.

Lord William Hesketh Lever [pictured above] built up the Lever Brothers business that made its home on the Wirral, founding the garden village of Port Sunlight in 1888.

I visited the village for a preview of SoapWorks, a new family visitor attraction opening May 26 — just in time for the May half-term holiday.

The museum explores the science behind soap through a series of hands-on exhibits.

“He chose soap with good reason,” says the gallery curator. “He saw the opportunity that soap could make people healthier and happier.”

Lord Lever was an early-adopter health and safety champion, providing better quality housing for his factory workers, although he was motivated by ensuring they didn’t miss a day at the factory.

The village is still home to the research arm of Unilever, the British multinational consumer goods company that grew out of Lever’s Sunlight Soap.

Art abuse

Afterwards, I headed to the nearby Lady Lever Art Gallery, founded by Lever for his wife, Elisabeth, in 1922.

The current exhibition, The Last Bohemian: Augustin John, explores works by the Tenby-born painter, who went on to study art in Liverpool.

John famously painted Lever’s portrait in 1920 but the then Lord Leverhulme found it unflattering, sparking a scandal when he cut out the head from the canvas.

When the story was leaked to the press, art students took to the streets of London to defend the artist’s right to capture Lever as he saw him.

The two sections were finally reunited in 1954 for a retrospective of John’s work at the Royal Academy.

Lever died a very rich man but, today, the gallery continues to explore his connections to the slave trade in the plan oil plantations of the Belgian Congo.

Maybe John captured something of the man after all.

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